Although it was delayed for about an hour and a half by weather, Auburn earned its first victory of the season Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It was certainly not a perfect performance, where the Tigers dominated from wire to wire, but there was plenty to like in the 42-16 win.
Plenty of Auburn Tigers that have been key players previously helped move the home team to 1-0, like running back Tank Bigsby and defensive end Derick Hall.
On the other hand, a large group of athletes who were elevated to starting roles for the first time or arrived on campus this year contributed to the victory like linebacker Cam Riley and quarterback Robby Ashford.
Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin will be glad to have a game where his team handled business against an overmatched opponent, but he won’t have to look too hard to find things to address and improve upon next week.
Take a look at two key takeaways from Auburn’s first matchup of the 2022 season.
Fair or not to junior quarterback TJ Finley, this was always going to be a discussion at the end of the Mercer game. The level of competition in game one meant that the good things he did could be downplayed and any mistakes would likely be magnified.
Finley is also done no favors by his past record of performance at LSU and Auburn in the last two seasons. The best outcome for the giant signal caller would have been a clean, efficient performance leading to a blowout win.
For the first 28 minutes of the game, Finley was headed directly toward that aim. He was not spectacular, but Finley completed a high percentage of his passes, delivered throws in the face of pressure, and avoided big mistakes.
Then, on the last Auburn possession of the first half, TJ Finley attempted a throw down the field on third down and was intercepted by a Mercer defensive back.
It was neither a good decision nor an accurate throw and the turnover gave Mercer a short field, which lead to the only touchdown that Auburn’s first team defense allowed against the visitors.
Unfortunately for Finley, on the first drive of the second half he underthrew an open receiver leading to his second interception of the game. Any good feelings or momentum from the first handful of drives melted away.
Finley would not see the field again. Instead the reins were handed over to redshirt freshman Robby Ashford for the remainder of the evening.
Ashford had already made his presence known, getting regular snaps throughout the first half as a change of pace quarterback with dynamic rushing ability. His 49-yard sprint down the sideline in the first quarter was quite an introduction to Tiger fans.
From the first time he took off with the ball it was apparent that the freshman is a big, fast athlete. Ashford was not really given an opportunity to pass the ball until the second half when he replaced Finley for the duration of the competition.
By the end of the game, Ashford completed four of his seven pass attempts for 100 yards, including a 56-yard deep ball to receiver Ja’Varrius Johnson that was extremely well thrown.
Ashford’s performance against Mercer should not have anyone conjuring ideas of a Heisman campaign, but the freshman’s physical talent is obvious. Whether or not Ashford can consistently complete passes and avoid mental mistakes will determine if he can unseat Finley as the full-time quarterback for the Tigers.
Following the game, Coach Harsin declined to say much about the quarterback outlook going forward other than both guys will continue to work hard and will get opportunities to play.
Quarterback performance at Auburn is likely to be the main story on the plains for at least a few more weeks.
New names to know
The first game of the 2022 season brought quite a few names to light that Tiger fans may not have recognized before but are likely to play key roles throughout the season.
Maybe the biggest example of this, other than the aforementioned Robby Ashford, was junior linebacker Cam Riley. Riley has been at Auburn for two years but played mainly as a back up and special teams standout.
Saturday night, Riley earned the first start of his Auburn career and he was all over the field from the outset. The rangy defender racked up 15 tackles on the night, tracking down ball carriers from sideline to sideline.
If Riley can come close to replicating that kind of impact on a regular basis he will be a household name in short order.
Another player who made an impact in his first action as a big time contributor at Auburn was defensive back Keionte Scott. Scott made a handful of tackles, was in good position in pass coverage, and looked explosive in punt return opportunities as well.
Scott’s versatility and athleticism were a welcome sight and could lead to the newcomer playing a key part of the Tigers’ defense and special teams.
Lastly, true freshman running back Damari Alston got a few carries in the first game of his career. Alston was unable to shake free for any big gains, but looked strong and quick in his handful of opportunities.
It was good that the newest tailback saw some action because it is likely that Auburn will need to rely on its rushing attack to generate most of its production. If Alston can give standout runner Tank Bigsby and explosive second teamer Jarquez Hunter a break on occasion, then it can help preserve them all throughout the long season.
Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers.